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It was the knowledge of a touch—reserved for him but given to another — that drove Ted Wiley out into the night. He'd seen it from his window, not intending to spy but spying all the same. The time: just past one in the morning. The place: Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames, a mere sixty yards from the river, and in front of her house from which they'd departed only moments before, both of them having to duck their heads to avoid a lintel put into a building in centuries past when men and women were shorter and when their lives were more clearly defined.
Ted Wiley liked that: the definition of roles. She did not. And if he hadn't understood before now that Eugenie would not be easily identified as his woman and placed into a convenient category in his life, Ted had certainly reached that conclusion when he saw the two of them—Eugenie and that broomstick stranger — out on the pavement and in each other's arms.
Flagrant, he'd thought. She wants me to see this. She wants me to see the way she's embracing him, then curving her palm to describe the shape of his cheek as he steps away. God damn the woman. She wants me to see this.
That, of course, was sophistry, and had the embrace and the touch occurred at a more reasonable hour, Ted would have talked himself out of the ominous direction his mind began taking. He would have thought, It can't mean anything if she's out in the street in daylight in public in a shaft of light from her sitting room window in the autumn sunshine in front of God and everyone and most of all me.... It can't mean anything that she's touching a stranger because she knows how easily I can see.... But instead of these thoughts, what was implied by a man's departure from a woman's home at one in the morning filled Ted's head like a noxious gas whose volume continued to increase over the next seven days as he — anxious and interpreting every gesture and nuance — waited for her to say, "Ted, have I mentioned that my brother" —or my cousin or my father or my uncle or the homosexual architect who intends to build another room onto the house — "stopped for a chat just the other night? It went on into the early hours of the morning and I thought he'd never leave. By the way, you might have seen us just outside my front door if you were lurking behind your window shades as you've taken to doing recently." Except, of course, there was no brother or cousin or uncle or father that Ted Wiley knew of, and if there was a homosexual architect, he'd yet to hear Eugenie mention him.
What he had heard her say, his bowels on the rumble, was that she had something important to tell him. And when he'd asked her what it was and thought he'd like her to give it to him straightaway if it was going to be the blow that killed him, she'd said, Soon. I'm not quite ready to confess my sins yet. And she'd curved her palm to touch his cheek. Yes. Yes. That touch. Just exactly like.
So at nine o'clock on a rainy evening deep in November, Ted Wiley put his ageing golden retriever on her lead and decided that a stroll was in order. Their route, he told the dog — whose arthritis and aversion to the rain did not make her the most cooperative of walkers — would take them to the top of Friday Street and a few yards beyond it to Albert Road, where if by coincidence they should run into Eugenie just leaving the Sixty Plus Club, where the New Year's Eve Gala Committee were still attempting to reach a compromise on the menu for the coming festivities, why, that's what it would be: a mere coincidence and a fortuitous chance for a chat. For all dogs needed a walk before they kipped down for the night. No one could argue, accuse, or even suspect over that.
The dog — ludicrously albeit lovingly christened Precious Baby by Ted's late wife and resolutely called P.B. by Ted himself — hesitated at the doorway and blinked out at the street, where the autumn rain was falling in the sort of steady waves that presaged a lengthy and bone-chilling storm. She began to lower herself determinedly to her haunches and would have successfully attained that position had Ted not tugged her out onto the pavement with the desperation of a man whose intentions will not be thwarted.
"Come, P.B.," he ordered her, and he jerked the lead so that the choke chain tightened round her neck. The retriever recognised both the tone and the gesture. With a bronchial sigh that released a gust of dog breath into wet night air, she trudged disconsolately into the rain.
The weather was a misery, but that couldn't be helped. Besides, the old dog needed to walk. She'd become far too lazy in the five years that had passed since her mistress's death, and Ted himself had not done much to keep her exercised. Well, that would change now. He'd promised Connie he'd look after the dog, and so he would, with a new regime that began this very night. No more sniffing round the back garden before bedtime, my friend, he silently informed P.B. It's walkies and nothing else from now on.
He double-checked to make sure the bookshop's door was secure, and he adjusted the collar of his old waxed jacket against the wet and the chill. He should have brought an umbrella, he realised as he stepped out of the doorway and the first splash of rainwater hit his neck. A peaked cap was insufficient protection, no matter how well it suited him. But why the hell was he even thinking about what suited him? he pondered. Fire and ice, if anyone wormed a way inside his head these days, it would be to find cobwebs and rot floating there.
Ted harrumphed, spat in the street, and began to give himself a pep talk as he and the dog plodded past the Royal Marine Reserve, where a broken gutter along the roof erupted rainwater in a silver plume. He was a catch, he told himself. Major Ted Wiley, retired from the Army and widowed after forty-two years of blissful marriage, was a very fine catch for any woman. Weren't available men scarce as uncut diamonds in Henley-on-Thames? Yes. They were. Weren't available men without unsightly nose hairs, overgrown eyebrows, and copious ear hairs scarcer still? Yes and yes. And weren't men who were clean, in possession of their faculties, in excellent health, dexterous in the kitchen, and of an uxorious disposition so rare in town as to find themselves victims of something akin to a feeding frenzy the very moment they chose to show themselves at a social gathering? Damn right, they were. And he was one of them. Everyone knew it.
Including Eugenie, he reminded himself.
Hadn't she said to him on more than one occasion, You're a fine man, Ted Wiley? Yes. She had.
Hadn't she spent the last three years willingly accepting his company with what he knew was pleasure? Yes. She had.
Hadn't she smiled and flushed and looked away when they'd visited his mother at the Quiet Pines Nursing Home and heard her announce in that irritating and imperious way of hers, I'd like a wedding before I die, you two. Yes, yes, and yes. She had, she had.
So what did a touch on a stranger's face mean in light of all that? And why could he not expunge it from his mind, as if it had become a brand and not what it was: an unpleasant memory that he wouldn't even have had had he not taken to watching, to wondering, to lurking, to having to know, to insisting upon battening down the hatches in his life as if it weren't a life at all but a sailing vessel that might lose its cargo if he wasn't vigilant?
Eugenie herself was the answer to that: Eugenie, whose spectral-thin body asked for nurture; whose neat hair — thickly silvered though it was with grey — asked to be freed from the hair slides that held it; whose cloudy eyes were blue then green then grey then blue but always guarded; whose modest but nonetheless provocative femininity awakened in Ted a stirring in the groin that called him to an action he hadn't been capable of taking since Connie's death. Eugenie was the answer.
And he was the man for Eugenie, the man to protect her, to bring her back to life. For what had gone unspoken between the two of them these past three years was the extent to which Eugenie had been denying herself the very communion of her fellow men for God only knew how long. Yet that denial had declared itself openly when he'd first invited her to join him for a simple evening glass of sherry at the Catherine Wheel.
Why, she's not been out with a man in years, Ted Wiley had thought at her flustered reaction to his invitation. And he'd wondered why.
Now, perhaps, he knew. She had secrets from him, had Eugenie. I have something important I want to tell you, Ted. Sins to confess, she'd said. Sins.
Well, there was no time like the present to hear what she had to say.
At the top of Friday Street, Ted waited for the traffic lights to change, P.B. shivering close at his side. Duke Street was also the main thoroughfare to either Reading or Marlow, and as such it carried all manner of vehicles rumbling through town. A wet night like this did little to decrease the volume of traffic in a society that was becoming depressingly more reliant upon cars and even more depressingly desirous of a commuter lifestyle defined by work in the city and life in the country. So even at nine o'clock at night, cars and lorries splashed along the soaked street, their headlamps creating ochroid fans that reflected against windows and in pools of standing water.
Too many people going too many places, Ted thought morosely. Too many people without the slightest idea of why they're rushing headlong through their lives.
The traffic lights changed and Ted crossed over, making the little jog into Grey's Road with P.B. bumping along next to him. Despite the fact that they'd not walked even a quarter of a mile, the old dog was wheezing, and Ted stepped into the shallow doorway of Mirabelle's Antiques to give the poor retriever a breather. Their destination was almost in sight, he reassured her. Surely she could make it just a few more yards up to Albert Road.
There, a car park served as courtyard for the Sixty Plus Club, an organisation attending to the social needs of Henley's ever-growing community of pensioners. There, too, Eugenie worked as Director. And there Ted had met her, upon relocating to the town on the Thames when he could no longer bear in Maidstone the memories of his wife's lengthy death.
"Major Wiley, how lovely. You're on Friday Street," Eugenie had said to him, reviewing his membership form. "You and I are neighbours. I'm at number sixty-five. The pink house? Doll Cottage? I've been there for years. And you're at..."
"The bookshop," he'd said. "Just across the street. The flat's above it. Yes. But I'd no idea ... I mean, I've not seen you."
"I'm always out early and back late. I know your shop, though. I've been in many times. At least when your mother was running it. Before the stroke, that is. And she's still well, which is lovely. Improving, isn't she."
He'd thought Eugenie was asking, but when he realised she wasn't — indeed, she was merely affirming information that she already had — then he also realised where he'd seen her before: at Quiet Pines Nursing Home, where three times each week Ted visited his mother. She volunteered there in the mornings, did Eugenie, and the patients referred to her as "our angel." Or so Ted's mother had informed him once as together they watched Eugenie entering a cubicle with an adult-sized nappie folded over her wrist. "She hasn't any relatives here, and the Home don't pay her a penny, Ted."
Then why, Ted had wanted to know at the time. Why?
Secrets, he thought now. Still waters and secrets.
He looked down at the dog, who'd sagged against him, out of the rain and determined to snooze while she had the chance. He said, "Come along, P.B. Not much farther now," and he looked across the street to see through the bare trees that there was not much more time either.
For from where he and the dog stood sheltered, he noticed that the Sixty Plus Club was disgorging its New Year's Eve Gala Committee. Raising their umbrellas and stepping through puddles like neophyte high-wire artists, the committee members called out their goodnights to one another with enough good cheer to suggest that a compromise on comestibles had been finally achieved. Eugenie would be pleased at this. Pleased, she'd no doubt be feeling expansive and ready to talk to him.
Ted crossed the street, eager to intercept her, his reluctant golden retriever in tow. He reached the low wall between the pavement and the car park just as the last of the committee members drove away. The lights in the Sixty Plus Club went out and the entry porch became bathed in shadow. A moment later, Eugenie herself stepped into the misty penumbra between the building and the car park, working upon the tie of a black umbrella. Ted opened his mouth to call her name, sing out a hearty hello, and make the offer of a personal escort back to her cottage. No time of night for a lovely lady to be alone on the streets, my dearest girl. Care for the arm of an ardent admirer? With dog, I'm afraid. P.B. and I were out for a final recce of the town.
He could have said all this, and he was indeed drawing breath to do so when he suddenly heard it. A man's voice called out Eugenie's name. She swung to her left, and Ted looked beyond her where a figure was getting out of a dark saloon car. Backlit by one of the streetlamps that dotted the car park, he was mostly shadow. But the shape of his head and that gull's-beak nose were enough to tell Ted that Eugenie's visitor of one in the morning had returned to town.
The stranger approached her. She remained where she was. In the change of light, Ted could see that he was an older man — of an age with Ted himself, perhaps — with a full head of white hair scraped back from his forehead and falling to touch the turned-up collar of a Burberry.
They began to talk. He took the umbrella from her, held it over them, and spoke to her urgently. He was taller than Eugenie by a good eight inches, so he bent to her. She lifted her face to hear him. Ted strained to hear him as well but managed to catch only "You've got to" and "My knees, Eugenie?" and finally, loudly, "Why won't you see—" which Eugenie interrupted with a rush of soft conversation and the placement of her hand on his arm. "You can say that to me?" were the final words Ted heard from the man before he jerked himself away from Eugenie's grasp, thrust the umbrella upon her, and stalked to his car. At this, Ted breathed a cirrus of relief into the cold night air.
It was a brief deliverance. Eugenie followed the stranger and intercepted him as he yanked open the door to his car. With the door between them, she continued to speak. Her listener, however, averted his face, and cried out, "No. No," at which point she reached up to him and tried to curve her palm against his cheek. She seemed to want to draw him to her despite the car door that continued to act like a shield between them.
It was effective as a shield, that door, because the stranger escaped whatever caress Eugenie wanted to bestow upon him. He dived into the driver's seat, wrenched the door closed, and started the engine with a roar that resounded against the buildings on three sides of the car park.
Eugenie stepped away. The car reversed. Its gears ground like animals being dismembered. Its tyres spun wickedly against wet pavement. Rubber met tarmac with a sound like despair.
Another roar and the car was speeding towards the exit. Not six yards from where Ted watched in the shelter of a young liquidambar tree, the Audi — for now it was close enough for Ted to see the distinguishing quadruple circles on its bonnet — swerved into the street without so much as a moment's pause for its driver to determine if any other vehicles were in his way. There was just enough time for Ted to catch a glimpse of a profile that was twisted with emotion before the Audi veered left in the direction of Duke Street and there turned right for the Reading Road. Ted squinted after it, trying to make out the number plate, trying to decide if he'd ill-chosen his moment to happen upon Eugenie.
He didn't have much time to select between scarpering for home and pretending he'd just arrived, however. Eugenie would be upon him in thirty seconds or less.
He looked down at the dog, who'd taken the opportunity of this respite from their walk to deposit herself at the base of the liquidambar, where she now lay curled, with the apparent and martyred determination to sleep in the rain. How reasonable was it, Ted wondered, to suppose he could coax P.B. into a fast trot that would take them out of the immediate area before Eugenie reached the edge of the car park? Not very. So he would offer Eugenie the pretence that he and the dog had just arrived.
He squared his shoulders and gave a tug on the lead. But as he was doing so, he saw that Eugenie wasn't heading his way at all. Instead, she was walking in the opposite direction, where a path between buildings offered pedestrians access to Market Place. Where the blazes was she going?
Ted hastened after her, at a brisk pace that P.B. didn't much care for but couldn't avoid without serious risk of strangulation. Eugenie was a dark figure ahead of them, her black raincoat, black boots, and black umbrella making her an unsuitable ambler on a rainy night.
She turned right into Market Place, and Ted wondered for the second time where she was going. Shops were closed at this hour, and it wasn't in Eugenie's character to frequent pubs alone.
Ted endured a moment of agony while P.B. relieved herself next to the kerb. The dog's capacious bladder was legend, and Ted was certain that, in the lengthy wait for P.B. to empty a pool of steaming urine onto the pavement, he'd lose Eugenie to Market Place Mews or Market Lane when she crossed halfway down the street. But after a quick glance right and left, she continued on her way, towards the river. Passing by Duke Street, she crossed into Hart Street, at which point Ted began thinking that she was merely taking a circuitous route home, despite the weather. But then she veered to the doors of St. Mary the Virgin, whose handsome crenellated tower was part of the river vista for which Henley was famous.
Eugenie hadn't come to admire that vista, however, for she swiftly ducked inside the church.
"Damn," Ted muttered. What to do now? He could hardly follow her into the church, canine in tow. And hanging about outside in the rain wasn't an appealing idea. And while he could tie the dog to a lamppost and join her at her prayers — if praying was what she was doing in there — he couldn't exactly maintain the pretence of a chance encounter inside St. Mary the Virgin after nine in the evening, when there was no service going on. And even if there had been a service, Eugenie knew he wasn't a churchgoer. So what the hell else could he do now except turn tail for home like a lovesick idiot? And all the time seeing seeing still seeing that moment in the car park when she touched him again, again that touch...
Ted shook his head vigorously. He couldn't go on like this. He had to know the worst. He had to know tonight.
To the left of the church, the graveyard made a rough triangle of sodden vegetation bisected by a path that led to a row of old brick almshouses whose windows winked brightly against the darkness. Ted led P.B. in this direction, taking the time that Eugenie was inside the church to marshal his opening statement to her.
Look at this dog, fat as a sow, he would say. We're on a new campaign to slim her down. Vet says she can't go on like this without her heart giving out, so here we are and here we'll be nightly from now on, making a circumvention of the town. May we toddle along with you, Eugenie? Heading home, are you? Ready to talk, are you? Can we make this the soon you spoke to me about? Because I don't know how much longer I can hold on, wondering what it is that you want me to know.
The problem was that he'd decided upon her, and he'd reached the decision without knowing if she'd reached it as well. In the last five years since Connie's death, he'd never had to pursue a woman, since women had done the pursuing of him. And even if that had demonstrated for him how little he liked to be pursued — damnation itself, when had women become so flaming aggressive? he wondered — and even if what evolved from those pursuits tended to be a pressure to perform under which he had consistently wilted, yet there had been an intense gratification in knowing that the old boy still had It and It was highly in demand.
Except Eugenie wasn't demanding. Which made Ted ask himself whether he was man enough for everyone else—at least superficially — but for some reason not man enough for her.
Blast it all, why was he feeling like this? Like an adolescent who'd never been laid. It was those failures with the others, he decided, failures he'd never once had with Connie.
"You should see a doctor about this little problem of yours," that piranha Georgia Ramsbottom had said, twisting her bony back from his bed and donning his flannel dressing gown. "It's not normal, Ted. For a man your age? What are you, sixty? It's just not normal."
Sixty-eight, he thought. With a piece of meat between his legs that remained inert despite the most ardent of ministrations.
But that was because of their pursuit of him. If they'd only let him do what nature intended every man to do — be the hunter and not the hunted — then everything else would take care of itself. Wouldn't it? Wouldn't it? He needed to know.
A sudden movement within one of the squares of light from an almshouse window attracted his attention. Ted glanced that way to see that a figure had come into the room that the window defined. The figure was a woman, and as Ted looked curiously in her direction, he was surprised to see her raise the red jumper that she was wearing, lifting it over her head and dropping it to the floor.
He looked left and right. He felt his cheeks take on heat, despite the rain that was pelting him. Peculiar that some people didn't know how a lit window worked at night. They couldn't see out, so they believed no one could see in. Children were like that. Ted's own three girls had to be taught to draw the curtains before they undressed. But if no one ever taught a child to do that ... peculiar that some people never learned.
He stole a glance in her direction again. The woman had re-moved her brassiere. Ted swallowed. On the lead, P.B. was beginning to snuffle in the grass that edged the graveyard path, and she headed towards the almshouses innocently.
Take her off the lead, she won't go far. But instead Ted followed, the lead looped in his hand.
In the window the woman began brushing her hair. With each stroke her breasts lifted and fell. Their nipples were taut, with deep brown aureoles encircling them. Seeing all this, his eyes fixed to her breasts as if they were what he'd been waiting for all evening and all the evenings that had preceded this evening, Ted felt the incipient stirring within him, and then that gratifying rush of blood and that throb of life.
He sighed. There was nothing wrong with him. Nothing at all. Being pursued had been the problem. Pursuing — and afterwards claiming and having — was the sure solution.
He tugged P.B.'s lead so the dog walked no farther. He settled in to watch the woman in the window and to wait for his Eugenie.
In the Lady Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin, Eugenie didn't so much pray as wait. She hadn't darkened the doorway of a house of worship in years, and the only reason she'd done so tonight was to avoid the conversation she'd promised herself that she'd have with Ted.
She knew he was following her. It wasn't the first time she'd come out of the Sixty Plus Club to see his silhouette under the trees on the street, but it was the first time she wouldn't allow herself to talk to him. So she hadn't turned in his direction when she could have done, at the natural moment to offer an explanation to what he'd witnessed in the car park. Instead, she'd headed for Market Place with no clear idea of where she was going.
When her gaze had fallen upon the church, she'd made the decision to slip inside and adopt an attitude of supplication. For the first five minutes in the Lady Chapel, she even knelt on one of the dusty hassocks, gazed upon the statue of the Virgin, and waited for the old familiar words of devotion to spring into her mind. But they would not. Her head was too filled with impediments to prayer: old arguments and accusations, older loyalties and the sins committed in the name of them, current importunacies and their implications, future consequences if she made an ignorant misstep now.
She'd made enough missteps in the past to devastate thirteen dozen lives. And she'd long ago learned that an action taken was the same as a pebble dropped into still water: The concentric rings that the pebble effects may lessen in substance, but they do exist.
When no prayer came to her, Eugenie rose from her knees. She sat with her feet flat on the floor and studied the face of the statue. You didn't make the choice to lose Him, did you? she asked the Virgin silently. So how can I ask you to understand? And even if you did understand, what intercession can I ask you to give me? You can't turn back time. You can't unhappen what happened, can you? You can't bring back to life what's dead and gone, because if you could, you would have done it to save yourself the torture of His murder.
Except they never say it was murder, do they? Instead, it's a sacrifice for a greater cause. It's a giving of life for something far more important than life. As if anything really is...
Eugenie put her elbows on her thighs and rested her forehead in the palms of her hands. If she was to believe what her erstwhile religion taught her to believe, then the Virgin Mary had known from the start exactly what would be required of her. She'd understood clearly that the Child she nurtured would be ripped from her life in the flowering of His manhood. Reviled, beaten, abused, and sacrificed, He would die ingloriously and she would be there to watch it all. And the only assurance she would ever have that His death had a greater meaning than what was implied by being spat upon and nailed up between two common criminals was simple faith. Because although religious tradition had it that an angel had appeared to put her in the picture of future events, who could really stretch their brains to fit around that?
So she'd gone on blind faith that a greater good existed somewhere. Not in her lifetime and not in the lifetime of the grandchildren she would never have. But there. Somewhere. Quite real. There.
Of course, it hadn't happened yet. Fast-forward two thousand brutal years and mankind was still waiting for the good to come. And what did she think, the Virgin Mother, watching and waiting from her throne in the clouds? How did she begin to assess the benefit against the cost?
For years newspapers had served to tell Eugenie that the benefits — the good — tipped the scales against the price she herself had paid. But now she was no longer sure. The Greater Good she'd thought she was serving threatened to disintegrate before her, like a woven rug whose persistent unraveling makes a mockery of the labour that went into its creation. And only she could stop that unraveling, if she made the choice to do so.
The problem was Ted. She hadn't intended to draw close to him. For so very long she hadn't allowed herself near enough to anyone to encourage confidence of any kind. And to feel herself even capable now — not to mention deserving — of establishing a connection to another human being seemed like a form of hubris that was certain to destroy her. Yet she wanted to draw close to him anyway, as if he were the anodyne for a sickness that she lacked the courage to name.
So she sat in the church. In part because she did not want to face Ted Wiley just yet, before the way was paved. In part because she did not yet possess the words to do the paving.
Tell me what to do, God, she prayed. Tell me what to say.
But God was as silent as He'd been for ages. Eugenie dropped an offering in the collection box and left the church.
Outside, it was still raining relentlessly. She raised her umbrella and headed towards the river. The wind was rising as she reached the corner, and she paused for a moment to wrestle against it as it struck her umbrella with more force than she expected and turned it inside out.
"Here. Let me help you with that, Eugenie."
She swung round and Ted was standing there, his old dog droopily at his side and rainwater dripping from his nose and jaw. His waxed jacket glistened brightly with damp, and his peaked cap clung to his skull.
"Ted!" She offered him the gift of her spurious surprise. "You look positively drowned. And poor P.B.! What are you doing out here with that sweet dog?"
He righted her umbrella and held it over both of them. She took his arm.
"We've begun a new exercise programme," he told her. "Up to Market Place, down to the church yard, and back home four times a day. What're you doing here? You haven't just come out of the church, have you?"
You know I have, she wanted to say. You just don't know why. But what she said was, lightly, "Decompressing after the committee meeting. You remember: the New Year's Eve committee? I'd given them a deadline to decide on the food. So much to be ordered, you know, and they can't expect the caterer to wait forever for them to make up their minds, can they?"
"On your way home now?"
"And may I...?"
"You know that you may."
How ridiculous it was, the two of them in such an idle conversation, with volumes of what needed saying deliberately going unsaid between them.
You don't trust me, Ted, do you? Why don't you trust me? And how can we foster love between us if we have no foundation of trust? I know you're worried because I'm not telling you what it was I said I wanted to tell you, but why can't you let the wanting to tell you be enough for now?
But she couldn't risk anything that would lead to revelation at the moment. She owed it to ties far older than the tie she felt to Ted to put her house in order before burning it down.
So they engaged in insignificant chat as they walked along the river: his day, her day, who'd come into the bookshop and how his mother was getting on at Quiet Pines. He was hearty and cheerful; she was pleasant albeit subdued.
"Tired?" he asked her when they reached the door of her cottage.
"A bit," she admitted. "It's been a long day."
He handed her the umbrella, saying, "Then I won't keep you up," but he looked at her with such open expectation in his ruddy face that she knew her next line was supposed to be to ask him in for a brandy before bed.
It was her fondness for him that prompted the truth. She said, "I've got to go into London, Ted."
"Ah. Early morning, then?"
"No. I've got to go tonight. I've an appointment."
"Appointment? But with the rain, it'll take you more than an hour.... Did you say an appointment?"
"Yes. I did."
"What sort ...? Eugenie..." He blew out a breath. She heard him curse quietly. So, apparently, did P.B., because the old retriever raised her head and blinked at Ted as if with surprise. She was soaking, poor dog. At least, thank God, her fur was thick as a mammoth's. "Let me drive you in, then," Ted said at last.
"That wouldn't be wise."
She put her hand on his arm to stop him. She raised it to touch his cheek, but he flinched and she stepped away. "Are you free for dinner tomorrow night?" she asked him.
"You know that I am."
"Then have a meal with me. Here. We'll talk then, if you'd like."
He gazed at her, trying — she knew —and failing to read her.
Don't make the attempt, she wanted to tell him. I've had too much rehearsal for a role in a drama you don't yet understand.
She watched him steadily, waiting for his reply. The light from her sitting room came through the window and jaundiced a face already drawn with age and with worries he wouldn't name. She was grateful for that: that he wouldn't speak his deepest fears to her. The fact that what frightened him went unspoken was what gave her courage to contend with everything that frightened her.
He removed his cap then, a humble gesture that she wouldn't for all her life have had him make. It exposed his thick grey hair to the rain and removed the meagre shadow that had hidden the rubicund flesh of his nose. It made him look like what he was: an old man. It made her feel like what she was: a woman who didn't deserve such a fine man's love.
"Eugenie," he said, "if you're thinking you can't tell me that you ... that you and I ... that we aren't..."He looked towards the bookshop across the street.
"I'm not thinking anything," she said. "Just about London and the drive. And there's the rain as well. But I'll be careful. You've no need to worry."
He appeared momentarily gratified and perhaps a trifle relieved at the reassurance she meant to imply. "You're the world to me," he said simply. "Eugenie, do you know? You're the world. And I'm a bloody idiot most of the time, but I do—"
"I know," she said. "I know that you do. And we'll talk tomorrow."
"Right, then." He kissed her awkwardly, hitting his head on the edge of the umbrella and knocking it askew in her hand.
Rain dashed against her face. A car raced up Friday Street. She felt spray from its tyres hit her shoes.
Ted swung round. "Hey!" he shouted at the vehicle. "Watch your bloody driving!"
"No. It's all right," she said. "It's nothing, Ted."
He turned back to her, saying, "Damn it. Wasn't that—" But he stopped himself.
"What?" she asked. "Who?"
"No one. Nothing." He roused his retriever to her feet for the last few yards to their front door. "We'll talk, then?" he asked. "Tomorrow? After dinner?"
"We'll talk," she said. "There's so much to say."
She had very few preparations to make. She washed her face and cleaned her teeth. She combed her hair and tied a navy blue scarf round her head. She protected her lips with a colourless balm, and she put the winter lining into her raincoat to give herself more protection from the chill. Parking was always bad in London, and she didn't know how far she would have to walk in the cold and windy storm-stricken air when she finally arrived at her destination.
Raincoat on and a handbag hooked over her arm, she descended the narrow staircase. She took from the kitchen table a photograph in a plain wooden frame. It was one of a baker's dozen that she usually had arranged round the cottage. Before choosing from among them, she'd lined them up like soldiers on the table and there the rest of them remained.
She clasped this frame just beneath her bosom. She went out into the night.
Her car was parked inside a gated courtyard, in a space she rented by the month, just down the street. The courtyard was hidden by electric gates cleverly fashioned to look like part of the half-timbered buildings on either side. There was safety in this, and Eugenie liked safety. She liked the illusion of security afforded by gates and locks.
In her car — a secondhand Polo whose fan sounded like the wheezing of a terminal asthmatic —she carefully set the framed photo on the passenger seat and started the engine. She'd prepared in advance for this journey up to London, checking the Polo's oil and its tyres and topping up its petrol as soon as she'd learned the date and the place. The time had come later, and she'd balked at it at first, once she realised ten forty-five meant at night and not in the morning. But she had no leg to stand on in protesting, and she knew it, so she acquiesced.
Her night vision wasn't what it once had been. But she would cope.
She hadn't counted on the rain, however. And as she left the outskirts of Henley and wound her way northwest to Marlow, she found herself clutching the steering wheel and crouching over it, half-blinded by the headlamps of oncoming cars, assailed by how the blowing rain diffracted the light in spearheads that riddled the wind-screen with visual lacerations.
Things weren't much better on the M40, where cars and lorries put up sheets of spray with which the Polo's windscreen wipers could barely keep pace. The lane markings had mostly vanished beneath the standing water, and those that could be seen seemed to alternate between writhing snakelike in Eugenie's vision and side-stepping to border an entirely different traffic lane.
It wasn't until she reached the vicinity of Wormwood Scrubs that she felt she could relax the death hold she had on the steering wheel.
Even then she didn't breathe with ease until she'd veered away from the motorway's sleek and sodden river of concrete and headed north in the vicinity of Maida Hill.
As soon as she could manage it, she pulled to the kerb at a darkened Sketchley's. There, she let out a lungful of air that felt as if it had been held back since she'd made the first turn into Duke Street in Henley.
She rooted in her handbag for the directions she'd written out for herself from the A to Z. Although she'd escaped the motorway unscathed, another quarter of the journey still had to be negotiated through London's labyrinthine streets.
The city at the best of times was a maze. At night it became a maze ill lit and in possession of a nearly laughable paucity of signposts. But at night in the rain it was Hades. Three false starts took Eugenie no farther than Paddington Recreation Ground before she got lost. Wisely, each time she returned the way she'd come, like a taxi driver determined to understand just where he'd made his first mistake.
So it was nearly twenty past eleven when she found the street she was looking for in northwest London. And she spent another maddening seven minutes circling round till she found a space to park.
She clasped the framed photo to her bosom again, took up her umbrella from the back seat of the car, and clambered out. The rain had finally abated, but the wind was still blowing. What few autumn leaves had remained on the trees were being wafted through the air to plaster themselves on the pavement, in the street, and against the parked cars.
Number Thirty-two was the house she wanted, and Eugenie saw that it would be far up the street, on the other side. She walked up the pavement for twenty-five yards. At that hour the houses she passed were mostly unlit, and if she hadn't been nervous enough about the coming interview, her state of anxiety was heightened by the darkness and by what her active imagination was telling her could be hidden there. So she decided to be careful, as a woman alone in a city on a rainy night in late autumn ought to be careful. She ventured off the pavement and proceeded on her way in the middle of the road, where she would have advance warning should anyone want to attack her.
She thought it unlikely. It was a decent neighbourhood. Still, she knew the value of caution, so she was grateful when the lights swept over her, telling her that a vehicle had turned into the street behind her. It was coming along slowly, the way she herself had come and doing what she herself had been doing, looking for that most precious of London commodities: a place to park. She turned, stepped back against the nearest vehicle, and waited for the car to pass her. But as she did so, it pulled to one side and blinked its lights, telling her that the way was hers.
Ah, she'd been mistaken, she thought, resettling her umbrella against her shoulder and going on her way. The car wasn't waiting for a parking space at all, but rather for someone to come out of the house in front of which it sat. She gave a quick glance over her shoulder when she reached this conclusion, and as if the unknown driver was reading her thoughts, the car's horn beeped once abruptly, like a parent who'd come calling for an unresponsive child.
Eugenie continued walking. She counted the house numbers as she passed. She saw Number Ten and Number Twelve. She'd gone barely six houses from her own car when the steady light behind her shifted, then went out altogether.
Odd, she thought. You can't just park in the street like that. And thinking this, she began to turn. Which was, as it happened, not the worst of her mistakes.
Bright lights blazed on. She was instantly blinded. Blinded, she froze as the hunted often do.
An engine roared and tyres wailed against the roadway.
When she was hit, her body flew up, her arms flung wide, and her picture frame shot up like a rocket into the cold night air.